Arquivo da tag: Desinformação

‘Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts’: The Age of Misinformation (The New York Times)

nytimes.com

Max Fisher


The Interpreter

Social and psychological forces are combining to make the sharing and believing of misinformation an endemic problem with no easy solution.

An installation of protest art outside the Capitol in Washington.
Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Published May 7, 2021; Updated May 13, 2021

There’s a decent chance you’ve had at least one of these rumors, all false, relayed to you as fact recently: that President Biden plans to force Americans to eat less meat; that Virginia is eliminating advanced math in schools to advance racial equality; and that border officials are mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book to hand out to refugee children.

All were amplified by partisan actors. But you’re just as likely, if not more so, to have heard it relayed from someone you know. And you may have noticed that these cycles of falsehood-fueled outrage keep recurring.

We are in an era of endemic misinformation — and outright disinformation. Plenty of bad actors are helping the trend along. But the real drivers, some experts believe, are social and psychological forces that make people prone to sharing and believing misinformation in the first place. And those forces are on the rise.

“Why are misperceptions about contentious issues in politics and science seemingly so persistent and difficult to correct?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, posed in a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s not for want of good information, which is ubiquitous. Exposure to good information does not reliably instill accurate beliefs anyway. Rather, Dr. Nyhan writes, a growing body of evidence suggests that the ultimate culprits are “cognitive and memory limitations, directional motivations to defend or support some group identity or existing belief, and messages from other people and political elites.”

Put more simply, people become more prone to misinformation when three things happen. First, and perhaps most important, is when conditions in society make people feel a greater need for what social scientists call ingrouping — a belief that their social identity is a source of strength and superiority, and that other groups can be blamed for their problems.

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.

This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.

Framing everything as a grand conflict against scheming enemies can feel enormously reassuring. And that’s why perhaps the greatest culprit of our era of misinformation may be, more than any one particular misinformer, the era-defining rise in social polarization.

“At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans,” which has “seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation,” Dr. Nyhan wrote in an earlier paper.

Growing hostility between the two halves of America feeds social distrust, which makes people more prone to rumor and falsehood. It also makes people cling much more tightly to their partisan identities. And once our brains switch into “identity-based conflict” mode, we become desperately hungry for information that will affirm that sense of us versus them, and much less concerned about things like truth or accuracy.

Border officials are not mass-purchasing copies of Vice President Kamala Harris’s book, though the false rumor drew attention.
Credit: Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

In an email, Dr. Nyhan said it could be methodologically difficult to nail down the precise relationship between overall polarization in society and overall misinformation, but there is abundant evidence that an individual with more polarized views becomes more prone to believing falsehoods.

The second driver of the misinformation era is the emergence of high-profile political figures who encourage their followers to indulge their desire for identity-affirming misinformation. After all, an atmosphere of all-out political conflict often benefits those leaders, at least in the short term, by rallying people behind them.

Then there is the third factor — a shift to social media, which is a powerful outlet for composers of disinformation, a pervasive vector for misinformation itself and a multiplier of the other risk factors.

“Media has changed, the environment has changed, and that has a potentially big impact on our natural behavior,” said William J. Brady, a Yale University social psychologist.

“When you post things, you’re highly aware of the feedback that you get, the social feedback in terms of likes and shares,” Dr. Brady said. So when misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it.

How do we fight disinformation? Join Times tech reporters as they untangle the roots of disinformation and how to combat it. Plus we speak to special guest comedian Sarah Silverman. R.S.V.P. to this subscriber-exclusive event.

“Depending on the platform, especially, humans are very sensitive to social reward,” he said. Research demonstrates that people who get positive feedback for posting inflammatory or false statements become much more likely to do so again in the future. “You are affected by that.”

In 2016, the media scholars Jieun Shin and Kjerstin Thorson analyzed a data set of 300 million tweets from the 2012 election. Twitter users, they found, “selectively share fact-checking messages that cheerlead their own candidate and denigrate the opposing party’s candidate.” And when users encountered a fact-check that revealed their candidate had gotten something wrong, their response wasn’t to get mad at the politician for lying. It was to attack the fact checkers.

“We have found that Twitter users tend to retweet to show approval, argue, gain attention and entertain,” researcher Jon-Patrick Allem wrote last year, summarizing a study he had co-authored. “Truthfulness of a post or accuracy of a claim was not an identified motivation for retweeting.”

In another study, published last month in Nature, a team of psychologists tracked thousands of users interacting with false information. Republican test subjects who were shown a false headline about migrants trying to enter the United States (“Over 500 ‘Migrant Caravaners’ Arrested With Suicide Vests”) mostly identified it as false; only 16 percent called it accurate. But if the experimenters instead asked the subjects to decide whether to share the headline, 51 percent said they would.

“Most people do not want to spread misinformation,” the study’s authors wrote. “But the social media context focuses their attention on factors other than truth and accuracy.”

In a highly polarized society like today’s United States — or, for that matter, India or parts of Europe — those incentives pull heavily toward ingroup solidarity and outgroup derogation. They do not much favor consensus reality or abstract ideals of accuracy.

As people become more prone to misinformation, opportunists and charlatans are also getting better at exploiting this. That can mean tear-it-all-down populists who rise on promises to smash the establishment and control minorities. It can also mean government agencies or freelance hacker groups stirring up social divisions abroad for their benefit. But the roots of the crisis go deeper.

“The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone,” the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a much-circulated MIT Technology Review article. “It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one.”

In an ecosystem where that sense of identity conflict is all-consuming, she wrote, “belonging is stronger than facts.”

Acute stress may slow down the spread of fears (Science Daily)

Date: May 12, 2020

Source: University of Konstanz

Summary: Psychologists find that we are less likely to amplify fears in social exchange if we are stressed.

New psychology research from the University of Konstanz reveals that stress changes the way we deal with risky information — results that shed light on how stressful events, such as a global crisis, can influence how information and misinformation about health risks spreads in social networks.

“The global coronavirus crisis, and the pandemic of misinformation that has spread in its wake, underscores the importance of understanding how people process and share information about health risks under stressful times,” says Professor Wolfgang Gaissmaier, Professor in Social Psychology at the University of Konstanz, and senior author on the study. “Our results uncovered a complex web in which various strands of endocrine stress, subjective stress, risk perception, and the sharing of information are interwoven.”

The study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, brings together psychologists from the DFG Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz: Gaissmaier, an expert in risk dynamics, and Professor Jens Pruessner, who studies the effects of stress on the brain. The study also includes Nathalie Popovic, first author on the study and a former graduate student at the University of Konstanz, Ulrike Bentele, also a Konstanz graduate student, and Mehdi Moussaïd from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

In our hyper-connected world, information flows rapidly from person to person. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how risk information — such as about dangers to our health — can spread through social networks and influence people’s perception of the threat, with severe repercussions on public health efforts. However, whether or not stress influences this has never been studied.

“Since we are often under acute stress even in normal times and particularly so during the current health pandemic, it seems highly relevant not only to understand how sober minds process this kind of information and share it in their social networks, but also how stressed minds do,” says Pruessner, a Professor in Clinical Neuropsychology working at the Reichenau Centre of Psychiatry, which is also an academic teaching hospital of the University of Konstanz.

To do this, researchers had participants read articles about a controversial chemical substance, then report their risk perception of the substance before and after reading the articles, and say what information they would pass on to others. Just prior to this task, half of the group was exposed to acute social stress, which involved public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience, while the other half completed a control task.

The results showed that experiencing a stressful event drastically changes how we process and share risk information. Stressed participants were less influenced by the articles and chose to share concerning information to a significantly smaller degree. Notably, this dampened amplification of risk was a direct function of elevated cortisol levels indicative of an endocrine-level stress response. In contrast, participants who reported subjective feelings of stress did show higher concern and more alarming risk communication.

“On the one hand, the endocrine stress reaction may thus contribute to underestimating risks when risk information is exchanged in social contexts, whereas feeling stressed may contribute to overestimating risks, and both effects can be harmful,” says Popovic. “Underestimating risks can increase incautious actions such as risky driving or practising unsafe sex. Overestimating risks can lead to unnecessary anxieties and dangerous behaviours, such as not getting vaccinated.”

By revealing the differential effects of stress on the social dynamics of risk perception, the Konstanz study shines light on the relevance of such work not only from an individual, but also from a policy perspective. “Coming back to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it highlights that we do not only need to understand its virology and epidemiology, but also the psychological mechanisms that determine how we feel and think about the virus, and how we spread those feelings and thoughts in our social networks,” says Gaissmaier.

Entenda por que as teorias da conspiração sobre coronavírus se proliferam tanto (Estadão)

internacional.estadao.com.br

Max Fischer, New York Times – 8 de abril de 2020

NOVA YORK – O coronavírus deu origem a uma enxurrada de teorias da conspiração, desinformação e propaganda, minando as autoridades de saúde e corroendo a confiança do público de maneiras que podem prolongar a pandemia e até mesmo se estender para além dela.

Alegações de que o novo coronavírus seria uma arma biológica estrangeira, uma invenção partidária ou parte de um projeto de reengenharia social substituíram um vírus sem razão nem propósito por vilões mais familiares e compreensíveis. Cada alegação parece dar a essa tragédia sem sentido algum grau de significado, por mais sombrio que seja.

Rumores de curas secretas – beber alvejante diluído, desligar os aparelhos eletrônicos, comer banana – dão uma esperança de proteção contra uma ameaça da qual nem mesmo os líderes mundiais estão escapando.

A crença de que alguém teve acesso ao conhecimento proibido proporciona uma sensação de certeza e controle em meio a uma crise que virou o mundo de cabeça para baixo. E compartilhar esse “conhecimento” pode dar às pessoas algo difícil de encontrar depois de semanas de isolamento e morte: a sensação de que se está fazendo alguma coisa.

“Aí estão todos os ingredientes que empurram as pessoas para as teorias da conspiração”, disse Karen Douglas, psicóloga social que estuda a crença em conspirações na Universidade de Kent, na Grã-Bretanha.

Rumores e afirmações flagrantemente estapafúrdias são disseminados por pessoas comuns cujas faculdades críticas simplesmente se viram esmagadas sob sentimentos de confusão e desamparo, dizem os psicólogos.

Mas muitas alegações falsas também vêm sendo promovidas por governos que tentam esconder seus fracassos, líderes partidários em busca de benefícios políticos, golpistas em geral e, nos Estados Unidos, por um presidente que insiste em curas não comprovadas e dispara falsidades que procuram eximi-lo de qualquer culpa.

Todas as teorias da conspiração carregam uma mensagem em comum: o único jeito de se proteger é saber as verdades secretas que “eles” não querem que você ouça.

O sentimento de segurança e controle proporcionado por esses rumores pode ser ilusório, mas os danos à confiança do público são bem reais.

As teorias conspiratórias estão levando as pessoas a consumir remédios caseiros que se revelaram letais e a desrespeitar as orientações de distanciamento social. E estão sabotando as ações coletivas, como ficar em casa ou usar máscaras, atitudes necessárias para conter um vírus que já matou mais de 79 mil pessoas.

“Já enfrentamos pandemias antes desta”, disse Graham Brookie, que dirige o Laboratório de Pesquisa Forense Digital do Atlantic Council. “Mas nunca enfrentamos uma pandemia num momento em que as pessoas estivessem tão conectadas e tivessem tanto acesso a informações quanto agora.”

Esse crescente ecossistema de desinformação e desconfiança pública obrigou a Organização Mundial da Saúde (OMS) a ligar o alerta para uma “infodemia”. “Estamos assistindo a uma verdadeira inundação”, disse Brookie. “A ansiedade é viral, e todos estamos nos sentindo mais ansiosos que nunca.”

O fascínio do ‘conhecimento secreto’

“As conspirações atraem as pessoas porque prometem satisfazer certos motivos psicológicos que são importantes para elas”, disse Douglas. Os principais deles: o domínio sobre os fatos, a autonomia sobre o bem-estar e a sensação de controle.

Quando a verdade não atende a essas necessidades, nós humanos temos uma capacidade incrível de inventar histórias que atenderão, mesmo que uma parte de nós saiba que as histórias são falsas. Um estudo recente revelou que as pessoas são significativamente mais propensas a compartilhar informações falsas sobre o coronavírus do que imaginam.

“A magnitude da desinformação que se espalhou com a pandemia da covid-19 está sobrecarregando nossa equipe”, escreveu no Twitter o Snopes, um site de verificação de fatos. “Estamos vendo que milhares de pessoas, na ânsia de encontrar algum conforto, acabam piorando as coisas ao compartilhar informações falsas (e, às vezes, perigosas).”

Vastamente compartilhadas, postagens de Instagram alegaram, falsamente, que o coronavírus fora planejado por Bill Gates em benefício de empresas farmacêuticas. No Alabama, postagens de Facebook afirmaram, falsamente, que poderes obscuros haviam ordenado que doentes fossem secretamente enviados de helicóptero para o Estado. Na América Latina, proliferaram rumores igualmente infundados de que o vírus fora projetado para espalhar o HIV. No Irã, vozes pró-governo retrataram a doença como uma trama ocidental.

Se as alegações parecerem sigilosas, melhor ainda

A crença de que temos acesso a informações secretas pode nos dar a sensação de que temos uma vantagem, de que, de alguma forma, estamos mais seguros. “Quem acredita em teorias da conspiração acha que tem um poder, conferido pelo conhecimento, que as outras pessoas não têm”, disse Douglas.

A mídia italiana repercutiu um vídeo postado por um italiano que morava em Tóquio, no qual ele dizia que o coronavírus era tratável, mas que as autoridades italianas estavam “escondendo a verdade”.

Outros vídeos, muito populares no YouTube, afirmam que toda a pandemia é uma ficção encenada para controlar a população.

As teorias da conspiração também podem fazer as pessoas se sentirem menos sozinhas. Poucas coisas estreitam mais os laços entre “nós” do que combater “eles”, especialmente quando “eles” são estrangeiros e minorias, frequentes bodes expiatórios de boatos sobre o coronavírus e muitas outras coisas no passado.

Mas qualquer conforto que essas teorias proporcionem terá vida curta. Com o tempo, segundo pesquisas, o intercâmbio de conspirações não apenas fracassa em satisfazer nossas necessidades psicológicas, disse Douglas, como também tende a agravar sentimentos de medo e desamparo.

E isso pode nos levar a procurar explicações ainda mais extremas, como viciados em busca de doses cada vez mais fortes.

Governos vêm uma oportunidade na confusão  

Os conspiradores e questionadores agora têm apoio dos governos. Antecipando a repercussão política da crise, líderes governamentais agiram rapidamente para se eximirem da culpa, espalhando suas próprias mentiras.

Uma importante autoridade chinesa disse que o vírus foi introduzido na China por membros do Exército dos Estados Unidos, uma acusação que teve permissão para se disseminar nas mídias sociais rigidamente controladas da China.

Na Venezuela, o presidente Nicolás Maduro sugeriu que o vírus era uma arma biológica americana cujo alvo seria a China. No Irã, as autoridades o chamaram de conspiração para acabar com o processo eleitoral no país. E agências de notícias que apoiam o governo russo, algumas com filiais na Europa ocidental, ventilaram alegações de que os Estados Unidos projetaram o vírus para minar a economia chinesa.

Nas antigas repúblicas soviéticas do Turcomenistão e Tadjiquistão, líderes recomendaram tratamentos falsos e defenderam a ideia de que os cidadãos deveriam continuar trabalhando.

Mas as autoridades tampouco deixaram de espalhar boatos em nações mais democráticas, particularmente naquelas em que a desconfiança em relação à autoridade abriu espaço para a ascensão de fortes movimentos populistas.

Matteo Salvini, líder do partido anti-imigração Liga Norte, na Itália, escreveu no Twitter que a China havia criado um “supervírus de pulmão” a partir de “morcegos e ratos”.

E o presidente do Brasil, Jair Bolsonaro, repetidas vezes propagandeou tratamentos não comprovados e insinuou que o coronavírus seria menos perigoso do que dizem os especialistas. Facebook, Twitter e YouTube tomaram a extraordinária decisão de remover suas postagens.

O presidente Donald Trump também insistiu repetidamente no uso de medicamentos não comprovados, apesar das advertências dos cientistas e de pelo menos uma overdose fatal, a qual vitimou um homem cuja esposa disse que ele havia tomado o remédio por sugestão de Trump.

Trump acusou seus supostos inimigos de tentar “inflamar” a “situação” do coronavírus para prejudicá-lo. Quando começaram a faltar equipamentos de proteção individual nos hospitais de Nova York, ele insinuou que os profissionais de saúde estavam roubando as máscaras. Seus aliados foram ainda mais longe.

O senador Tom Cotton, republicano do Arkansas, e outros sugeriram que o vírus foi produzido por um laboratório de armas chinês. Alguns aliados da mídia alegaram que os inimigos de Trump exageraram o número de mortos.

Uma crise paralela

“Essa supressão de informações é perigosa – muito, muito perigosa”, disse Brookie, referindo-se aos esforços chineses e americanos para minimizar a ameaça do surto.

A supressão de informações alimentou não apenas conspirações específicas, mas também uma sensação mais generalizada de que as fontes e dados oficiais não são confiáveis, bem como a ideia cada vez mais disseminada de que as pessoas devem buscar a verdade por conta própria.

A cacofonia dos epidemiologistas de sofá, que costumam chamar a atenção com afirmações sensacionalistas, muitas vezes encobre a fala de especialistas legítimos, cujas respostas raramente são muito sintéticas ou tranquilizadoras.

Eles prometem curas fáceis, como evitar os aparelhos eletrônicos ou até mesmo comer bananas, e dizem que o transtorno do isolamento social é desnecessário. Alguns chegam a vender tratamentos enganosos que eles próprios inventaram.

“As teorias da conspiração do campo da medicina têm o poder de aumentar a desconfiança nas autoridades médicas, o que pode afetar a disposição das pessoas a se protegerem”, escreveram Daniel Jolley e Pia Lamberty, pesquisadores de psicologia, em um artigo recente.

Demonstrou-se que tais alegações deixam as pessoas menos propensas a tomar vacinas ou antibióticos e mais propensas a procurar aconselhamento médico junto a amigos e familiares, e não profissionais de saúde.

A crença em uma conspiração também tende a aumentar a crença nas outras. As consequências, alertam os especialistas, podem não apenas piorar a pandemia, mas também se estender para além dela. / TRADUÇÃO DE RENATO PRELORENTZOU 

Why Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Flourish. And Why It Matters (New York Times)

The Interpreter

Unseen villains. Top-secret cures. In their quest for reassurance during the pandemic, many people are worsening more than just their own anxiety.

Volunteers disinfecting a theater in Wuhan, China, last week.
Volunteers disinfecting a theater in Wuhan, China, last week.Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

By Max Fisher

April 8, 2020; Updated 8:55 a.m. ET

The coronavirus has given rise to a flood of conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda, eroding public trust and undermining health officials in ways that could elongate and even outlast the pandemic.

Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark.

Rumors of secret cures — diluted bleach, turning off your electronics, bananas — promise hope of protection from a threat that not even world leaders can escape.

The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.

“It has all the ingredients for leading people to conspiracy theories,” said Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain.

Rumors and patently unbelievable claims are spread by everyday people whose critical faculties have simply been overwhelmed, psychologists say, by feelings of confusion and helplessness.

But many false claims are also being promoted by governments looking to hide their failures, partisan actors seeking political benefit, run-of-the-mill scammers and, in the United States, a president who has pushed unproven cures and blame-deflecting falsehoods.

The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.

The feelings of security and control offered by such rumors may be illusory, but the damage to the public trust is all too real.

It has led people to consume fatal home remedies and flout social distancing guidance. And it is disrupting the sweeping collective actions, like staying at home or wearing masks, needed to contain a virus that has already killed more than 79,000 people.

“We’ve faced pandemics before,” said Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.”

People gathering on a beach in Rio de Janeiro last week. Brazil’s president has implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say.
People gathering on a beach in Rio de Janeiro last week. Brazil’s president has implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say.Credit…Antonio Lacerda/EPA, via Shutterstock

This growing ecosystem of misinformation and public distrust has led the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic.”

“You see the space being flooded,” Mr. Brookie said, adding, “The anxiety is viral, and we’re all just feeling that at scale.”

“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr. Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.

If the truth does not fill those needs, we humans have an incredible capacity to invent stories that will, even when some part of us knows they are false. A recent study found that people are significantly likelier to share false coronavirus information than they are to believe it.

[Analysis: Peaks, testing and lockdowns: How coronavirus vocabulary causes confusion.]

“The magnitude of misinformation spreading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming our small team,” Snopes, a fact-checking site, said on Twitter. “We’re seeing scores of people, in a rush to find any comfort, make things worse as they share (sometimes dangerous) misinformation.”

Widely shared, Instagram posts falsely suggested that the coronavirus was planned by Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. In Alabama, Facebook posts falsely claimed that shadowy powers had ordered sick patients to be secretly helicoptered into the state. In Latin America, equally baseless rumors have proliferated that the virus was engineered to spread H.I.V. In Iran, pro-government voices portray the disease as a Western plot.

If the claims are seen as taboo, all the better.

The belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer. “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr. Douglas said.

Amid a swirl of rumors about the cause of Covid-19, some have attacked cellphone towers, like this one in Birmingham, England.
Amid a swirl of rumors about the cause of Covid-19, some have attacked cellphone towers, like this one in Birmingham, England.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters

Italian media buzzed over a video posted by an Italian man from Tokyo in which he claimed that the coronavirus was treatable but that Italian officials were “hiding the truth.”

Other videos, popular on YouTube, claim that the entire pandemic is a fiction staged to control the population.

Still others say that the disease is real, but its cause isn’t a virus — it’s 5G cellular networks.

One YouTube video pushing this falsehood, and implying that social distancing measures could be ignored, has received 1.9 million views. In Britain, there has been a rash of attacks on cellular towers.

Conspiracy theories may also make people feel less alone. Few things tighten the bonds of “us” like rallying against “them,” especially foreigners and minorities, both frequent scapegoats of coronavirus rumors and much else before now.

But whatever comfort that affords is short-lived.

Over time, research finds, trading in conspiracies not only fails to satisfy our psychological needs, Dr. Douglas said, but also tends to worsen feelings of fear or helplessness.

And that can lead us to seek out still more extreme explanations, like addicts looking for bigger and bigger hits.

The homegrown conspiracists and doubters are finding themselves joined by governments. Anticipating political backlash from the crisis, government leaders have moved quickly to shunt the blame by trafficking in false claims of their own.

A senior Chinese official pushed claims that the virus was introduced to China by members of the United States Army, an accusation that was allowed to flourish on China’s tightly controlled social media.

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro suggested that the virus was an American bioweapon aimed at China. In Iran, officials called it a plot to suppress the vote there. And outlets that back the Russian government, including branches in Western Europe, have promoted claims that the United States engineered the virus to undermine China’s economy.

In the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, leaders praised bogus treatments and argued that citizens should continue working.

But officials have hardly refrained from the rumor mongering in more democratic nations, particularly those where distrust of authority has given rise to strong populist movements.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League Party, wrote on Twitter that China had devised a “lung supervirus” from “bats and rats.”

And President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has repeatedly promoted unproven coronavirus treatments, and implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all took the extraordinary step of removing the posts.

President Trump has pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists.
President Trump has pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump, too, has repeatedly pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists and despite at least one fatal overdose of a man whose wife said he had taken a drug at Mr. Trump’s suggestion.

Mr. Trump has accused perceived enemies of seeking to “inflame” the coronavirus “situation” to hurt him. When supplies of personal protective equipment fell short at New York hospitals, he implied that health workers might be stealing masks.

His allies have gone further.

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and others have suggested that the virus was produced by a Chinese weapons lab. Some media allies have claimed that the death toll has been inflated by Mr. Trump’s enemies.

“This kind of information suppression is dangerous — really, really dangerous,” Mr. Brookie said, referring to Chinese and American efforts to play down the threat of the outbreak.

It has nourished not just individual conspiracies but a wider sense that official sources and data cannot be trusted, and a growing belief that people must find the truth on their own.

A cacophony arising from armchair epidemiologists who often win attention through sensational claims is at times crowding out legitimate experts whose answers are rarely as tidy or emotionally reassuring.

They promise easy cures, like avoiding telecommunications or even eating bananas. They wave off the burdens of social isolation as unnecessary. Some sell sham treatments of their own.

“Medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves,” Daniel Jolley and Pia Lamberty, scholars of psychology, wrote in a recent article.

Such claims have been shown to make people less likely to take vaccines or antibiotics, and more likely to seek medical advice from friends and family instead of from doctors.

Supposed coronavirus remedies at a market in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Supposed coronavirus remedies at a market in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

Belief in one conspiracy also tends to increase belief in others. The consequences, experts warn, could not only worsen the pandemic, but outlive it.

Medical conspiracies have been a growing problem for years. So has distrust of authority, a major driver of the world’s slide into fringe populism. Now, as the world enters an economic crisis with little modern precedent, that may deepen.

The wave of coronavirus conspiracies, Dr. Jolley and Dr. Lamberty wrote, “has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.